Saturday, October 6, 2012

Learner's Permit

I was standing behind the steering wheel of a 32 foot sailboat, supposedly in control of the vessel with three strangers on board, fighting back nausea, trying to figure out which way the wind was blowing and whether that was right, left, starboard, and whether the boat was close hauled, broad reach, or just up a creek.  Clearly I had no paddle, which I was far more used to, and no rudder, like the 27 foot boat I had sailed with a fair amount of competence the month before.

One of the strangers, the instructor I had just met two hours before, was shouting at me to get control and find my heading before we heeled or keeled or did something else equally liable to land me in the Pacific.  I took a deep breath, fought back the urge to either throw myself overboard or hurl my breakfast onto the smug father and son duo would had flown in from Phoenix specifically for this class and adjusted the wheel.

As the boat settled, I saw with crystal clarity how Bean feels when faced with a workbook page asking her to delineate the parts of speech in a sentence.  I realized that what started out as a whim might be the best thing I had done for our homeschooling in a long time.

I hadn't really planned to learn how to sail at all.  As I flipped through the parks and rec catalog, looking for summer classes for the kids, I happened to notice a basic sailing class for adults and thought it might be a fun way for me to fit in some exercise.  The fact that the class counted toward certification to be a bareboat skipper was a bonus.  Having an official piece of paper with my name on it might be gratuitous, but it never gets old.

Taking a sailing class is a continuation of a theme that I've noticed since I was about 35: I relearn something that I did poorly as a kid.  Usually, I associate some degree of trauma with whatever I'm re-learning.  When I was nine I picked knitting as one of my 4H projects for the year, but after my first few wonky inches of a scarf, the co-leader of our club suggested I better pick another project quickly since the county fair was only six months away.  (The other co-leader was my father, and since I wasn't doing anything related to horticulture or animal husbandry, I'm not sure he even knew about my ill-fated attempt at the fiber arts.) At 35, I taught myself the knit stitch using a book and the purl stitch using YouTube and proceeded to knit non-stop until Boo was born, at which point, I realized it would take more than an online video for me to figure out how to knit around a nursing baby and keep up with then 5 year old Bean.  I know some mothers who manage to knit through all sorts of hell and high water, but I was not gifted with their dexterity.

I did figure out to hire a babysitter and squeeze in math and science classes after Boo was born.  I had always planned on being a doctor until a particularly nasty run-in with physics class my sophomore year of high school.  This and related disasters of adolescence pretty much upended my life at the time and led me firmly down a book-lined path of liberal arts and away from labs and numbers.  Taking pre-calculus, biology, and chemistry at the local community college has not yet steered me back to med school, but it was cathartic and gave me extra confidence when it came to working with Bean on math and science.

My childhood encounters with sailing were fleeting and far less traumatic.  The summer I was fourteen, the only thing I did on my family's summer vacation besides sit in the back seat and listen to Tears for Fears until the batteries on my Walkman were drained was take two classes on a lake somewhere in Michigan (the vacationland of the midwest) in a boat barely big enough for myself and the instructor.  I found it thrilling and confusing, not quite grasping the relationship between where I wanted to go, the wind, and the direction we actually sailed.  Later that summer or maybe the next, I spent a week with my father, his best friend and the friend's eight year old son on a boat.  This was as thrilling as it sounds - complete with sea-sick-enhanced food poisoning contracted from fried fish and screaming fights with my father over whatever world-shattering thing we fought about in those days. (I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self that I wouldn't even remember all the small tragedies in 25 years.  I'm sure I would fight bitterly with myself and not believe a word of it.) I have always remembered the boat as a sailboat, but after my second sailing class this summer, I began to wonder if it had really been a power boat, because nothing seemed familiar.

Sailing is not knitting or math.  It is physically demanding as well as mentally challenging.  Sailing has its own language and it's own locale that is completely different from anything in my day to day life.  From the minute I step on the dock, I am in different world.

More than anything else in my adult life, learning to sail has reminded me what it's like to be a freshly scrubbed, raw human being trying to learn the business of life and learning
 from scratch.  It calls to mind the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind." It's easy to lose that feeling under our daily and yearly accumulation of experience and knowledge. It's even easier for me to forget that Bean and Boo are still in the very early stages of hunting and gathering their way to fully formed human beings.  But when I am learning something unfamiliar in a vast environment that has its own dangerous power, forever reminding me how bumbling and inexperienced I am, it renews my perspective as a parent and gives me reserves of empathy when my children are in a tight spot, gripping their steering wheel and unsure which way the winds are blowing and what to do next.

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